3 Things I Learned From Being a Professional Performing Artist


If you've spent some years doing paid performance gigs you know that navigating the business end is far less intuitive than the art part. Here are 3 of the biggest things I learned:

1.) Be prepared for everything to go completely, unpredictably, and horribly wrong.

Just as much as you never want to show up at a gig having no idea what you're actually doing for a performance, you also should never be so rock solid well prepared that you're no longer maleable. As a fire dancer who goes on tour with a band you very quickly learn that event promoters are idiots that often have a habit of telling everyone what they want to hear without checking up on the facts and make a lot of assumptions.

For an example when I was with Super Geek League we once played a show in a giant fiberglass igloo and were suppose to open for Green Jelly. The promoter, who will remain nameless even though he really should be publically called out on his incompetence but that's a different lesson, told us that we were set to both do aerial and fire in the venue. I know from experience to check up on these kind of facts because aerial can be deadly if the points are not rigged for 2000 lbs instead of a 20 lb light or projector and fire can be as well not only for the fire dancer but everyone in attendance. (see Rhode Island Whitesnake show) Since our setlist was rather complicated back then with only 6 official dancers doing multiple costume changes and we had just learned at Hempfest the day before that Green Jelly didn't make it into town and we were now headlining and had to double the length of our set which was an intricate science to make feasible and practically impossible to please all participants, I went down to the venue to inspect and confirm these 2 key aspects so we would have an experienced professional opinion if they would fly the next night. The igloo had extremely high ceilings, great ventilation, and 4 or 5 emergency exits over the required 2-3 for doing fire BUT the management told me the owner said absolutely not. That was that. Then the one that was utterly ridiculous was the supposed rigging point that could bear no more than a paper chandelier as the geodesic dome might as well have been made from popsicle sticks and paper mache. If an aerialist had tried to hand from it, it would surely have pulled a chunk out of the ceiling if not the whole thing down. I went back to the shop to wrap el wire around my staff and the aerialist started working on a grounded dance for her song bummed that she gave up 3 others for her big Sky Captain spotlight. THIS HAPPENS ALL THE TIME SO CONTIGENCY PLANS ARE CRITICAL.

When you're performing with a band you can count on not having too many sound problems, at least from your perspective not theirs (don't ask "Millie Vanilli" Tuesday Luke of Murder Weapons) but when you're on your own this is the number one place where well prepared, thinking themselves superior quality than anyone else because of their complicated choreography, can be completely thrown from their high horse. Just as, and trust me you seriously don't want to do this, you never want to arrive or be trying to decide in route which song you are planning to dance to.. you never want to be so set in your planned set that you can not change it last minute or will be utterly ruined if you come to find one of your key elements is missing. I do respect performers who have 100% polished choreographed routines but they are one missing iPod to RCA cable away from disaster. You can try to be extra prepared by bringing a back up disc as well as a flash drive but this will also give you a false sense of security because you might arrive to a boombox plugged in 20' away that you have to stop spinning fire and be really still to hear if you are in time with the song or not. Be comfortable with just winging it. Be comfortable with adapting to a smaller space. Be prepared to be on squishy wet grass with a downhill slope or beach sand (yeah, heels are sexy but not orthopoedic shoes after you break an ankle). I'm hopefully not encouraging pre-show nervous breakdowns btw, I'm actually trying to prevent them because you considered the fact that you may have to completely let go of all attachments to what's suppose to happen. A professional performer will just laugh and adapt instead of have a hissy fit or tears and stomp out saying they quit!

2.) Know what your time is worth and demand fair compensation. Always stick your ground if you ever want to see progress in that regard.

This is absolutely the number one thorn in the side of those seeking to make the break from hobbyist to a professionally paid performing artist. So you've been honing your craft for a few years and not only feel you have developed a variety of performance quality skills but have also mastered the art of stage presence and are starting think you could pursue your new dream of making a living doing it. First off, don't quit your day job! Maybe see if you can merely cut back on your hours committed to work instead of fully take the leap to starving artist because a deadly malnourished artist is worthless. Your act can always be improved upon by say a custom made costume or shiny new prop and it wasn't exactly an cheap habit on your former budget, was it? Don't get caught dead in the water and fail. Be prepared to cover the immense cost of your presentation on your own and do not expect to even break even. The biggest problem with trying to make a living doing performances is once you clear the hurdle of getting paid what you ask is the frequency and availability of paid work. This is the banana peal you will inevitably step and slip on so it's best to consider this when you are deciding what you should charge per appearance.

Here we arrive at the big question I'm sure at least three quarters of you are reading this for. In America as a performing artist you are looked upon as barely a half step above a street vagrant or traveling trailer trash carnie so no one expects or will treat you as a highly skilled professional with rates equivalent to a lawyer considering the amount of time and experience you invested in it, not to mention it may be dangerous and you risk your life by doing it, but you need to set your rate this high and here's why: You are only working 1-3 billable hours a week even though you are going to be working constantly every single minute you can spare. I put in and keep regular daily office hours working on and maintaining the business front of my troupe and this does not even include time for practice or rehearsal which you will find can go to the wayside if you're not careful and expect to be successful in show business. Note the fact that it is a business first of all which means you must learn how to be and do business. You are offering a product that is not tangible meaning no one can hold it in their hands and enjoy it in years to come except for the memory of the energy they experienced while watching your performance. This is unbelievably challenging! As mentioned even if your were previously in a salaried management position, people will see you in terms of hourly hired help. If your performance is a commodity they will only be able to value it in terms of how long it will last. This cause some newer wannabe professionals to think they need to use a thesaurus and write up a heavy adjective laden description of their product in order to sell people on the profound energetic benefits of beholding it. Don't waste your breathe and check out how cheesy and fake they sound on others websites and blogs. Even though you truly understand what they're getting at do you even find it believable or are you tempted to think they're trying to make up for in description what they lack in talent?

3.) Be prepared for rejection and a lot of frustration.

Rather than describe your act with a lot of fluffy metaphors connecting it to your spiritual viewpoints along with elaborating on the philosophical concept of "flow", try describing your talent in terms of your tangible investment just like your resume for employment will always contain your level of education, exceptional accomplishments, and proof of the amount of applicable experience you have with it and references. This is the language clients appreciate when considering whether to hire you for the job of entertaining their guest. They absolutely won't get how exciting and inspirational of an impression and what a life long special effect that 10-15 min performance will have on them until after the fact and are then thrilled that they went ahead and accepted your terms and add in a tip. Nothing about your magical fairy tale like delicate awesomeness will convince them to decide that you are worthy of the risk of having at their event and may just convince them you should remain in the forest where you belong if not a mental institution. Sappy positivity butterfly hippieness will make a busy event planner run the other direction because they don't have time to bring you down to the world of dollars and sense.

The next obstacle once you have a price and start promoting and marketing your act is the response:

$200 for 15 min?! You have got to be kidding!

Because that means your rate is $400 an hour and they are surely superior to you since they work IT at Amazon for no more than $75 an hour once they've done the math.. Therefore you are highly inflating your costs vs. profit margin something exponentially ridiculous and once again must be fairy tale delusional. This is when it's okay to let your perky positive good vibes come through even though you want to chew them a new asshole. Explain that they are not paying for merely the 15 min that you will actively spend in presenting the final product but the full 40 hour work week you will spend in prep for it. Then they can see it in terms of $200 a week and they are back to feeling horrified by your willingness to live in dire poverty and now they think you undervalue yourself so you must not be very talented. See how that flipped? Do absolutely consider the amount of time you will spend on preparing giving yourself a min wage (what? you don't have any time sheets to turn in so be thrilled if you even manage to get it) and include it in your quote, plus some of your expenses you will incur. I like to charge for travel time if over an hour at a standardly recognized rate of .50 per mile and I also include how much I could have added had I not come with my own permit for the event as I pay $500 annually but a single event cost $189 which validates your $200 right there and gets us into a concrete perspective plus you look like a professional who is prepared, legal, legitimate, and experienced assuming you have the permit which is required for what I do in public in my city. Sidenote: check into your local laws and know that bureaucrats can totally be your friends and I'll leave that for a future post. Once you named your price people will try to barter you down so either do in fact inflate it a bit to leave room for negotiation or stand firm. Period. I know you may be broke and desperate and half of your fee is better than nothing but HOLDING YOUR GROUND IS CRUCIAL TO ESTABLISHING YOUR MARKET NOT ONLY FOR YOU BUT FOR YOUR HARD WORKING COMRADES AND COMPETITORS. 

Think of it this way: that person will talk at their event that you are not performing at and they will tell someone that they thought of hiring fire dancers or what have you and tell their guest that they are really expensive and asked for way more than they had thought they would have to pay or were willing to pay for them! This puts the thought into people's heads to expect higher prices so that it will be absorbed into the collective consciousness for ultimately your benefit eventually. I was rejected consistenly asking for only about $100-150 for two solid years before I booked one single paid gig. Now I easily get contracts for $500-2000. Cheers!

Next time I'll write about how:
4.) Shit talkers are the only ones who stink.
Until then peace, love, and gigs ~

Asraiya On Fire